The Curious Case of the Lithium-Ion Battery

If you have been to an airport over the past few weeks, you’ve probably noticed a strange message posted on walls and repeated on overhead speakers: Passengers are no longer allowed to bring a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 on board an airplane. This unusual announcement is because the phone carries the possibility of overheating and exploding without warning.

Samsung’s public and somewhat embarrassing recall of the Note 7 is a strange case, but it is not necessarily unique to consumers. The reason the phone could explode stems from the use of a lithium-ion battery. These batteries are used in many of the devices we use every day – phones, laptops, certain handheld tools, etc. In fact, there’s a good chance that the device you’re using right now is using a lithium-ion battery.

Lithium-ion batteries are popular among manufacturers because they can provide more power for their size as compared to larger types of batteries (think 9 volts, A’s, AA’s, etc.). Not only are they smaller, they are also lighter, they last longer and they can handle many more charge/recharge cycles than other batteries.

For all their benefits, lithium-ion batteries also have disadvantages. For example, they are more sensitive to high temperatures. Once they have been completely drained, they are no longer functional. But the most worrisome quality of lithium-ion batteries is that when they do fail, even if it is somewhat rare, they can overheat and explode

This last flaw has been the cause of many consumer scares over the past several years. Exploding laptops, phones, hoverboards and e-cigarettes have largely been due to the use of lithium-ion batteries. When these batteries fail for any number of reasons (exposure to heat or charging-related issues) the results can be catastrophic for the consumer.

There are several scary videos online of exploding lithium-ion battery-powered devices that you can browse if you want to be even more concerned about how dangerous a defective battery can be. The good news is that the chances are relatively slim that you’ll experience the horrific scenes seen in these videos. The bad news is that it is possible, and there can be little way of knowing whether the battery in your device is more likely to fail and, thus, explode.

It is this unknown that is worrying buyers and safety advocates. Nobody wants the looming threat of an exploding phone, even if the odds are in your favor. Unfortunately, we are dependent upon manufacturers to do the right thing as soon as they realize their devices are posing a threat to consumers. Some manufacturers recall their devices once it becomes apparent they are dangerous, but it is often only after many complaints, and sometimes serious injuries, have been reported.

Lithium-ion battery technology has improved over the years, but they are obviously still susceptible to these dangerous defects. When you consider the fact that the trend of product design – especially mobile devices – is veering toward smaller and lighter, we can safely assume that the use of the lithium-ion battery will only increase in the years to come.

There might be alternatives to lithium-ion batteries, such as “solid-state” or magnesium-ion batteries. Some of these budding energy sources offer promise and could be much safer for consumers. Currently, however, these battery technologies are far from ready to replace the ever-popular lithium-ion variety. Hopefully, designers will also find ways to make our products’ batteries safer for consumers.